Once the celebration was over, and the Boston College football team left Ford Field in Detroit with a win in the Quick Lane Bowl — its first bowl victory since 2007 — Harold Landry went back home to North Carolina and unplugged for the first time in a long time.
He had been dialed in long before the 2016 season started.
Since the summer, his alarm had been set to chirp early in the morning. Every day in the offseason was designed to be a building block for a breakout season. The workouts — early in the morning, then late into the night — led to one of the best seasons by a defensive lineman in BC history: a school-record 16½ sacks, plus second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference and second-team All-America honors.
It was the kind of season that put Landry into conversations about the NFL Draft.
The pros were within arm’s reach, and Landry had a choice to make: Leave BC a year early and make the leap to the NFL or stay in college, complete his degree, improve as a player, and ideally raise his draft stock.
But before he made any heavy decisions about his future, he went back to Spring Lake, N.C., to recharge.
“When I was home, I wasn’t even thinking about the decision,” Landry said. “I was just hanging out with my family.
“We had just won the bowl game. I was with my family. I hadn’t been with them in a while. So I was just focused on that.”
The time at home was the start of a perspective shift for Landry.
Two months earlier, Landry and his fiancée Danielle Rios-Roberts found out they had a child on the way. That alone reframed how he thought about his future.
“I know that it’s definitely up to me to provide for them, especially right now,” Landry said.
There was no shortage of opinions on what he should do.
There were family members that nudged him toward the NFL. He couldn’t begrudge them. The temptation of millions of dollars is difficult to ignore.
Within the BC program, coaches laid out where draft evaluators projected him going.
He listened to the voices he trusted — close friends, teammates, former teammates, coaches.
He had long conversations with his fiancée. They talked about what it would mean for themselves and their son. They both had supportive parents, but they were still college students. Entering the draft offered financial security. But beyond improving as a player, staying at BC meant that Landry could complete his degree by December.
“It was hard for him, for sure, making the decision,” Rios-Roberts said. “If he declared early, we would have our home, we’d be situated, he’d be able to see Greyson more. So a lot of those things factored into it.”
At the same time, Landry had set concrete goals for himself. Being a first-round pick was one of them. The draft projections had him pegged as a second- to third-round selection.
The best advice, he said, came from former BC assistant Al Washington.
“He said I need to do what’s best for me,” Landry said. “There’s going to be a lot of noise, a lot of people pulling me in different directions. But at the end of the day, he just told me, I need to do what’s best for me, I need to sit down and just think to myself with no distractions, nobody around and just think what would be best for me.”
Sense of purpose
When Landry took everything into account, the best option was to bet on himself.
He envisioned himself as a first-round pick — a status that would put him among elite rookies and ensure financial security. If NFL experts didn’t see him as a first-rounder after last season, Landry figured one more year could convince them.
Since Landry announced his decision in January to come back for his senior season, he has pushed all his chips in.
“I feel like I’m in the NFL already,” Landry said. “I feel like in the NFL, guys are out there battling like that’s their life. Like that’s how they feed their family.
“And to be honest, that’s how I’m going to feed my family, is through football right now. So I’ve got to make sure that I produce on a daily basis so I can set my family up in the best way possible.”
His fiancée supported him fully.
“He can do it, definitely,” Rios-Roberts said. “And when those draft grades were coming out last year, he was like, ‘I know I can do so much better.’ So he felt if he stayed that extra year, ultimately, in the long run, our future would be better.”
The decision took maturity and foresight and months of conversations.
“We keep saying that we’re making sacrifices now to have the future that we want later,” Rios-Roberts said. “It’s hard when you’re getting pulled in a lot of directions, because obviously everybody has something they want to say and everybody has an opinion of what we should do.
“But when it comes down to it, it’s really the decision that works best for Harold, myself, and our son.”
Greyson arrived in June, and the sense of purpose Landry carried with him a year ago has only become more clearly defined as he chases a dream while also learning to be a father.
“He’s always been such a hard worker,” said Rios-Roberts, “but I really think that knowing we were having a baby and just knowing what he really wants and knowing the NFL is something that he could potentially have, he is just so much harder of a worker now than I’ve ever seen.
“When he’s not doing football, he’s hanging out with me. When he’s not with me, he’s doing football. That is his life. His family and football are literally what he lives for and what he works for.
“He really does handle it extremely well. I know he feels a lot of pressure. We talk about it. He knows that whatever happens after this year, he’s working to support us. So he definitely does feel the pressure. But he’s also doing something that he loves. So I think that makes it a lot easier for him.”
The focus he took into last season has become more singular knowing that football isn’t just his life, but also his livelihood. It’s been evident since spring practices. It carried over into preseason camp. In trying to improve, Landry doesn’t let a moment slip away.
“Last season, I watched a lot of film every single day,” he said, “but there was always points in the day where I’d go out, get a bite to eat with my boys or watch a movie or something like that in my room.
“Now I’m just so locked into football, I literally eat, sleep, and breathe football when I’m not with my fiancée and my son. Literally just watching film all day or doing an extra workout.”
In his own hands
One of the incentives for coming back to The Heights was getting another year to work with defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni.
Pasqualoni has helped mold some of the NFL’s most fearsome defensive linemen — from J.J. Watt in his time with the Houston Texans, to DeMarcus Ware with the Dallas Cowboys, to Jason Taylor with the Miami Dolphins.
In their first year together, Landry and Pasqualoni developed trust. Landry embraced Pasqualoni’s coaching style and attention to detail and technique. Another year together, he figured, would only make him more NFL-ready.
Pasqualoni said it always starts with the player.
“At the end of the day, what I want Harold to understand is he’s the guy who’s got to do it,” Pasqualoni said. “He’s the one.
“I tell the guys all the time. There’s no guarantees. There’s nobody out here that can help you more than you can help yourself. We’re going to coach you, we’re going to do all those things, but at the end of the day, this motivation to do this and this passion to do this has got to be internal.
“It can’t be anywhere from the outside. It’s got to come from you. You’ve got to want to do it, and you’ve got to understand how competitive this thing is and you’ve got to understand how hard guys in your position are working at this. It’s morning, noon, and night.”
Landry’s alarm is already set — early mornings, late nights — until the bet he made on himself and his family pays off.
“I took the game serious before, but now it’s my life,” Landry said. “That’s all I care about is my family and football. Ultimately this is what I want to do with my life is play football. Having that motivation with the motivation of my family, it just builds up from here.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.